We all know it, both as consumers and as marketers: people are no longer satisfied with passive online experiences. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a conscience matter, where we actually wish a brand would do something to engage us. But it’s really no less clear. Places like Facebook have forever changed the expectations we have for our digital interactions.  We have learned that two-way engagements are more rewarding. Being able to control and navigate gives us a sense of empowerment. And we’re bothered by things that get in the way of what we’re doing (ahem, pre-roll). This has all led to a steep rise over the last few years in participation-based marketing. But the reality is that it only reaps a reward for us if our efforts are more than a toe’s dip in the water.

And there are many dabblers – water-testers, unsure of how to engage with their audiences or what the real value is in doing so. Sometimes it’s chasing competitors, other times it’s chasing the need to be relevant.  But ultimately, the choice must be driven by brand-guided goals.

Participation comes in many forms – online reviews, social fan pages, check-in, online games like SVNGR, QR codes, crowdsourcing. Even Facebook “Likes.” While it’s certainly not exclusively true, the reality is that far too many resist the truth –that what matters isn’t that you did a cool, one-off QR code thing, but rather what you do to ladder up to a greater brand purpose. What does audience involvement mean to your brand? How do you plan to embrace people as a part of your brand identity?

One of the greater offenses is the deliberate effort to collect loads of Facebook fan page “Likes”… without a clear design of what you expect this will yield or what you plan to do with all these people. Surely part of this can be attributed to the speed at which social channels have progressed and our efforts to quickly and often unsuccessfully align practical metrics against them. Even so, it’s generally accepted that social channels not only foster relationships, but also create the two-way interaction that can lead to better informed marketing and more loyal customers.  Even Facebook with their latest move to use “Like” as a replacement for the share button turns once unseen interacts into shared, participatory content.

In more cases than we care to admit, companies garner their thousands of Facebook fan page Likes and end up doing little more than pushing a wall post or offering the occasional coupon. Is that really participation? Is the only goal to “increase visibility?” Why? When you’re using a channel that let’s you create real dialogue, gather audience intelligence and create better relationships.

For the sake of drawing a clear line to the value of participation, consider big crowdsourced initiatives. And I’m not talking about the crowdsourced stuff everyone loves to debate, ala Harley-Davidson. I’m referring to the direct brand-to-people kind – like Doritos’ long running “Crash the Superbowl.” They take a big investment and amplify it by tapping their raving fans. The result is a series of ads that the public eagerly anticipates. Each year, participants and viewers grow more and more interested. But, why this is such a participation success is because it also fits neatly into the brand context we have for Doritos. Their marketing has become a part of their brand culture.

But participation doesn’t have to be this huge to make an impact. The city of New York, who decided to join “Give a Minute,” will use the platform to generate ideas that improve the city. It empowers people to get involved, gathers community and elevates the city’s brand. It admits mistakes and invites ideas. It gives people a voice and generates practical solutions as an outcome. And – here’s the bit one – it ladders up to a bigger goal of city and leadership improvement.

A common theme in all good participation-driven initiatives, whether crowdsourced, on Facebook or otherwise, is the relevance to the company’s brand message. Another important factor is the brand’s willingness to fully embrace the channel. Not just to sacrifice some control, but to use the channel to its fullest potential and to align it with other brand-central initiatives.  To do this, you can’t nibble off the corner, you have take a big bite.

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